This past Sunday The Simpsons began its twenty-seventh season, spurring yet another round of the question “Jesus christ, how long is this thing gonna keep going?” Not long ago, when it was reported that voice actor Harry Shearer was retiring and presumably taking the half dozen characters he voices — including Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns and Principal Skinner — with him, Fox maintained that the show would go on regardless (although they eventually caved and offered him more money). If the loss of those characters didn’t prompt any talk of shutting down The Simpsons, it’s fair to conclude that there are no plans to retire the show in the near future.
As a big fan of the show, I’m perfectly okay with this. I grew up watching the show, great swathes of my memory are dedicated to it, I play the iPhone game religiously and I’ll likely end up with a Simpsons tattoo at some point in the near future. Basically, I’ll watch the show until either it dies or I do. And regardless of whether or not you think the show is decades past its prime, which is certainly not an uncommon opinion, it’s still good television. When my sister messaged me last year to tell me the news of FXX running a mega-marathon in which they would take twelve days to broadcast 552 episodes back-to-back, I was pleased despite the fact that I would not be able to witness this wonderful event all the way from my home in Tokyo. I wouldn’t need to, though; I routinely do my own Simpsons marathons because I love the show with a passion that burns no less bright for the passage of two and a half decades.
The marathon was a huge hit, giving the fledgling network its highest ratings ever and managing to capture the biggest audience in the 18-to-49 demographic for three nights. It kinda lead them redesign their whole network with a giant chunk of it devoted to The Simpsons and they’re planning another marathon for this year. It’s clear that America still loves The Simpsons. But, I mean, for real guys, it’s been going for twenty-seven fucking years. It’s nearly as old as I am. I enjoy the new seasons and still maintain that it’s a solid show, but where is this thing going? Is there even a plan? Are we just going to wait for most of the main cast to die? They’re rich enough where that could take at least another three decades!
Truthfully, though, I’d be happy with The Simpsons somehow lasting the rest of my life and beyond, going forward into the centuries and forming the backbone of a rich oral tradition our great-great-grandchildren pass down to their own offspring as they crouch fearfully in the earthen hovels in which they cower in fear as hunter-killer droids patrol the post-apocalyptic wasteland above them. I’d love for The Simpsons to become our new folk stories, our new mythology. In my dreams, a thousand years from now a father will take his beautiful progeny out of their geodesic dome and point up at the stars, identifying constellations with names like Kwik-E-Mart, The Bouvier Twins, Lenny, etc.
Nevertheless, I have to admit a desire to see something new. Not just new episodes, but something radically different, something exciting. But what could that be? They’ve already covered a lot of ground in twenty-seven years. People have died, some have come out as gay, Selma has married three or four guys, Maggie talked that one time, they’ve had a few cross-over episodes, and I still don’t know who Bart’s new teacher is. (Sofia Vegara is guest-starring in an upcoming episode as a new fourth grade teacher but likely won’t stick around, which is a shame because I think she’d be great for the role.) It’s broadcast in nearly 70 countries worldwide. What’s left to be done? Where else can we take this thing? Where do the Simpsons go from here?
Well guess what, I have an idea.
I’m not generally a fan of anime, but right now I’d like to talk to you about a show called Urusei Yatsura（うる性やつら), a Japanese animated comedy that ran for five years in the early eighties. It was based on a popular comic of the same name starring a lecherous young man forced into a relationship with a space princess who could fly and generate electricity and who wore a fur bikini for nearly the entirety of the series.
So yeah, pretty standard stuff for 1980s Japan. I’m sure that, at that time, you couldn’t open your car door without hitting a space princess or her weird floating pig baby. At any rate, it was massively popular and the production schedule for the animated series was grueling: in the five years it ran, they produced and broadcast an episode every week with no seasonal breaks, averaging about 40 episodes a year. Sometime during this torturous schedule some asshole decided to have the same creative team also produce an animated film, presumably because the only extra cost incurred would be in the form of the high-grade methamphetamine doled out to the artists and writers to keep them awake an extra five hours a night.
The first Urusei Yatsura film, Urusei Yatsura: Only You, was similar to The Simpsons Movie in that it was essentially a 112-minute episode of the series. There were higher production values and higher stakes as far as the plot was concerned, but it more or less kept to the same themes and atmosphere as the series. And just as with The Simpsons Movie, this proved to be a winning formula. “Bigger, Longer, Uncut” happens to be the tagline of another popular animated series’s successful film adaptation but I think it can be applied fairly to both The Simpsons Movie and Only You, and the latter, released in 1983, performed well in Japanese theaters and earned itself plenty of critical praise.
With the success of the first movie and the continuing success of the series, some studio bigwigs noticed that they still had some meth leftover and decided that they may as well make another film. This time, however, Only You director Mamoru Oshii also took over writing duties from Urusei Yatsura creator Rumio Takahashi and created Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer. Fans were expecting another extended episode much in the vein of Only You, but what they got just a year later in 1984 was something else entirely.
I first saw Beautiful Dreamer the same way I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night, by which I mean I came home from work late one night, got stoned, and turned on IFC. It’s a method I’d recommend to anyone, even if it did once result in me seeing David Thewliss’s naked ass. It was a bit jarring at first (Beautiful Dreamer, I mean, not David Thewliss’s South End Business District), because Beautiful Dreamer doesn’t bother to explain the setting or characters. At the time of its release everyone in Japan already knew who the green-haired flying girl with horns was, just like they knew who everyone in the already-pretty-large extended cast was and how they interact within their little world. Having never seen the show, I didn’t know any of this. To me the movie was saying “okay listen, this chick can fly, this dude has a tank, these kids are running a nazi-themed cafe at their high school festival, fuck you if you can’t keep up.”
Yes, that is a swastika she’s screwing light bulbs into, because I wasn’t kidding about the nazi-themed cafe.
Fortunately the history of the show and its characters didn’t really matter in this case because the film immediately takes a sharp left turn and barrels off down a weird metaphysical road. It deviates so sharply from its source material that many fans at the time felt betrayed or tricked somehow. They weren’t pleased, which is a shame because Beautiful Dreamer is actually a pretty great film. Its 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes isn’t an accident. It’s wonderfully directed and a lot of the shots still stick out in my memory despite the outdated animation and horrendous English dubbing. The plot in and of itself isn’t terribly original (in fact it’s partly based on a Japanese folk tale similar to Rip Van Winkle), but the story boils down to a surreal exploration of the nature of dreams and reality. It’s masterfully told with a lot of very effective, and affecting, scenes.
Cut now to a cafe on the east side of Tokyo a few weeks ago, where I was discussing my plan for this article with a friend who immediately recognized the film as Mamoru Oshii’s. “Don’t you know who he is?” he asked, his tone implying confusion at my obvious stupidity. “That dude went on to make Ghost In The Shell. He made Avalon. That’s not a Urusei Yatsura film,” he continued, growing in excitement, “that’s an Oshii film. That’s the first Oshii film. Dude is totally an auteur filmmaker.”
This was all news to me, but it only strengthened my theory on how to do something interesting, something truly exciting, with The Simpsons. Springfield is a much larger world that that of Urusei Yatsura, and the characters are all far more developed with deep histories from which to draw. Guys, listen: why not let some modern auteurs take a crack at telling a Simpsons tale? What kind of Simpsons story could Terence Malick tell? Or Wes Anderson? Or the Coen brothers? Holy shit, you guys, what about John Waters? I’d wager that there are a lot of writers and directors out there willing to take a shot at writing the weirdest Simpsons story ever told. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be a film — I’ve recently finished reading the first three volumes of Bartkira and I fucking loved it. I loved seeing these familiar characters put in new places and doing new things.
Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m well aware of the danger involved in getting what you wish for. A Simpsons movie produced by Quentin Tarantino may make me wish that I had never written this article, that I had never come up with this idea, that I had never been born, and that none of you had ever been born either. But remember, friends, that even The Simpsons Movie took some chances that payed off. I and many others were worried that they’d have some character using the sort of profanity you can’t get away with on network television, which at the time I figured was completely unnecessary and would likely ruin the whole goddam thing. But when that profanity finally came at the climax of the film, it was Marge — easily the sweetest, most gentle, most loving and nurturing character in the history of the show — who delivered it, and it was absolutely perfect. It was a small step into unknown territory, but it was a step, and it landed beautifully.
This can be done, people. This can happen. We need to make it happen, and we need to do it before anyone else on the cast dies.
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